You enter the new Indianapolis Museum of Art through a tunnel. That's because most of the parking has been moved below ground - more on that in a moment.
The IMA open house is this weekend, Friday - Saturday.
Let's linger a moment in this tunnel. It has a great deal to tell us about what has changed about the IMA. In the first place, it's not dark. The tunnel is illuminated by a series of streamlined skylights, complemented by unobtrusive electric lighting. What's more, its walls curve gently, encouraging you on your way.
But finally, and most important, this tunnel is a work of art. Its walls are painted in large, embraceable blocks of primary colors. Painted within these blocks, in clear and colorful type, is the statement, "NEVER ODD OR EVEN." It's a palindrome, a phrase that reads the same backwards as forward. You could say it gets you coming and going.
This is a permanent installation by artist Kay Rosen, whose work with words is exhibited around the world, but who lives in Gary, Ind.
All of this - the tunnel's elegant design which transcends mere utility, the fact that it is a work of art (and by an artist who is one of us, no less), its playfulness and, if you want to push it further, its ideas - speaks about an IMA that seems intent not just to represent art, but to be the living thing itself.
"We talked about the values we've wanted to convey through the architecture," says Lisa Freiman, the IMA's associate curator for contemporary art and the person responsible for turning the museum's entryway into an aesthetic experience. "It has to do with accessibility and openness and diversifying. The IMA belongs to every single person in this city."
That's a point underlined by John T. Thompson, chairman of the IMA's board - the first African-American to hold that position - who calls on us to "demand excellence ... and demand your place in this."
On May 6, the IMA will reopen to the public after a long period of construction and a thorough reimagining that began back in 1997 when architect Jonathan Hess was assigned the task of designing a dramatic museum expansion. Work continues on the upper two levels of the museum. But that doesn't make the ribbon cutting that will take place Friday morning at 9:30 a.m. - or the ensuing weekend open house, which will run through May 8, and will be free to the public - any less dramatic.
Many new galleries ... and a restaurant
Once visitors emerge from the Kay Rosen tunnel, they will be able to see the museum's American and European galleries on Level One. The American galleries have more than doubled in space and will include one space devoted to the work of Indiana artists including T.C. Steele and William Forsythe. A Native Art of the Americas gallery will include about 100 objects featuring sculptures from the Olmec civilization of Mexico, Mayan figures and vessels, textiles from Peru and gold jewelry from Central America.
Level One attractions also include the new Star Studio, the IMA's first hands-on, interactive gallery space, which will offer two contemporary art installations per year. The opening installation is called Amorphic Robot Works: The Feisty Children. Amorphic Robot Works is a New York-based collective of artists, engineers and technicians led by artistic director Chico MacMurtrie. A dozen robotic "children" create a kind of pandemonium that would have had the old IMA's security guards screaming for mercy into their walkie-talkies. The Feisty Children combines funk and futurism.
You can also visit the Davis X Room. The X Room uses high-tech tools developed by the Visualization and Interactive Spaces Lab at IUPUI to enable visitors to learn more about the museum and various works of art. Visitors using the "Cabinet of Dreams" wear polarized glasses to interact with virtual objects created by 3-D computer graphics from the IMA's Chinese collection.
Hungry museum-goers will be able to satisfy their appetites at Puck's, chef Wolfgang Puck's fine-dining restaurant, or at the IMA Café, which is also run by Wolfgang Puck catering. Both self-service and full-service restaurants will be open Tuesday-Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Puck's restaurant will seat Thursday through Saturday evenings, 5 to 9 p.m. and will offer Sunday brunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Puck's began taking reservations May 3. You can call Puck's direct line at 317-999-2315.
Keeping the grounds intact
In addition to the sheer size of the new IMA, visitors are liable to be struck by how Hess has managed to extend and amplify the former building's clean lines and dark wood accents into new spaces that manage to be dramatic in a grand, public sense, without sacrificing possibilities for casual intimacy. In part, this is thanks to the many new views that Hess has provided of what is arguably the most valuable part of the IMA's collection, its grounds.
Two years ago, when construction was in its early stages, many people, including members of the IMA's horticultural staff, expressed fear that the museum would lose many of its old-growth trees to bulldozers.
These concerns were shared by former IMA President Brett Waller, as well as by a number of board members who found the funding necessary to preserve a large share of the museum's oldest trees. The pay-off can be easy to overlook for seeming so natural and right. For example, a mature sugar maple stands majestically within reach of a glass wall by the entry to the new Events Pavilion. Most buildings would have settled for a hastily planted sapling.
"Luckily, we had a group of trustees who liked trees and landscape as much as we do," says horticulturalist Mark Zelonis, the director of the IMA's Oldfields. "This didn't have to happen, but it did."
Several dozen trees were moved out of harm's way. Others were treated with a growth hormone that put them in a state of hibernation for two to three years so that their roots wouldn't be disturbed by construction taking place nearby. The result is that the new building occupies a landscape that suits its expanded scale. "The building is such a tremendous size that you need these 80-foot trees to scale it down," Zelonis says.
But the IMA grounds have not only been preserved, they have been expanded, too. Over 60,000 plants - trees, perennials and annuals - have been planted. According to Zelonis, "It's creating several acres of new gardens that we just haven't had before."
Perhaps the biggest change that visitors will experience is in front of the building. A formerly broad expanse of surface parking has been submerged below ground. In its place is a long mall consisting of generous greensward lined on either side with trees. The view it provides rewards people out for a walk around the grounds as well as those standing in the galleries indoors, looking out.
"We demonstrate our values through all of our actions," Freiman says of the mindset behind the new IMA. Go see for yourself.